Daniel Dennett, fiery atheist philosopher who saw human brains as ‘programmes’ – obituary

Daniel Dennett: he went further than any other philosopher or biologist in arguing that the whole of nature, including all human behaviour, is underpinned by a Darwinian 'algorithm'
Dennett: went further than any other philosopher or biologist in arguing that all of nature, including human behaviour, is underpinned by a Darwinian 'algorithm' - Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto

Daniel Dennett, the American philosopher, who has died aged 82, was, with Richard Dawkins, a leading proponent of Darwinism and one of the most virulent controversialists on the academic circuit.

Dennett argued that everything has to be understood in terms of natural processes, and that terms such as “intelligence”, “free will”, “consciousness” “justice”, the “soul” or the “self” describe phenomena which can be explained in terms of physical processes and not the exercise of some disembodied or metaphysical power. How such processes operate he regarded as an empirical question, to be answered by looking at neuroanatomy – the engineering involved in brains.

Darwinism, to Dennett, was the grand unifying principle that explains how the simplest of organisms developed into human beings who can theorise about the sorts of creatures we are. In Consciousness Explained (1991), he argued that the term “consciousness” merely describes “dispositions to behave” and the idea of the “self” was nothing more than a “narrative centre of gravity”.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) he went further than any other philosopher or biologist in arguing that the whole of nature, including all individual human and social behaviour, is underpinned by a Darwinian “algorithm” – a single arithmetical, computational procedure.

Borrowing Richard Dawkins’s notion of “memes” (“bytes” of transferable cultural ideas encompassing anything from a belief in God to an individual’s fashion tastes), Dennett argued that the Darwinian algorithm also explained, for example, the musical genius of JS Bach, whose brain “was exquisitely designed as a programme for composing music”.

Dennett’s philosophy undercut any idea of teleology or “purposive” creation. There is no point in our existence, he maintained, and those who believe otherwise put their faith in “skyhooks” (“hooks” that can be fixed to the sky to make it easier to build skyscrapers). Skyhooks, of course, do not exist, but, Dennett argued, men reach for a piece of magic, a designer behind the design, to avoid the fact that life has no intrinsic meaning.

He believed religion to be a 'meme' as dangerous as the Aids virus
He believed religion to be a 'meme' as dangerous as the Aids virus - Rick Friedman

Darwinians, on the other hand, he called the “brights”, a group which (perhaps understandably in the American context) he had a tendency to regard as an oppressed minority.

Dennett was not a man who shrank from conflict. On the door of his office at Tufts University, Boston, Massachussetts, he pinned up Gore Vidal’s observation: “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.” His targets included most of the big names in the recent history of ideas – John Searle, Noam Chomsky, George Steiner, Stephen Jay Gould, Roger Penrose, Jerry Fodor, Richard Lewontin – all “skyhook” merchants, in Dennett’s view.

Gould, a staunch opponent of the sort of evolutionary psychology which Dennett championed, was a particular target. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Dennett devoted four chapters to demolishing Gould.

But Dennett’s harshest judgement was reserved for peddlers of religion which, like Dawkins, he believed to be a “meme” every bit as dangerous as the Aids virus. In Breaking the Spell (2006) he sought to demonstrate that religion is itself a biologically evolved concept, and one that has outlived its usefulness.

Dennett’s opponents pointed out that, in maintaining his view of the evolutionary basis of belief, Dennett was just as closed to opposing points of view as any religious fundamentalist. Indeed with his billowing white beard and moustaches he had something of the look of a 17th-century Ranter. There were also those who wondered exactly what scientific evidence he had to back up his arguments.

For Dennett argued that religion is subject to the “laws” of evolution – such as natural selection. In embracing the idea of religion as a self-propagating “meme” which mutates as it is handed down through the generations of human “hosts”, he hitched his reputation to an idea for which there is no supporting data at all.

When asked how he could be so confident, Dennett replied: “It helps being right, I guess”.

Dennett: 'I grew up in the shadow of everybody's memories of a quite legendary father'
Dennett: 'I grew up in the shadow of everybody's memories of a quite legendary father' - Ibl/Shutterstock

Daniel Dennett was born in Beirut on March 28 1942 into an established New England family. His father, Daniel Dennett senior, was an eminent historian who specialised in the social and political history of Islam. At the time of his son’s birth he had transferred from Harvard to the University of Beirut to finish his doctorate. When America joined the Second World War, he was recruited to the forerunner of the CIA in the Middle East. He was killed in a plane crash while on a mission to Ethiopia in 1948 when his son was five.

The family – his mother, Daniel, and two sisters – returned to New England. “I grew up in the shadow of everybody’s memories of a quite legendary father,” Dennett recalled. “It was assumed by all that I would eventually go to Harvard and become a professor.”

After education at the Phillips Exeter Academy, he went to Wesleyan University, where, in his first year, he took a paper in mathematical logic and chanced upon WVO Quine’s From a Logical Point of View (1953). He disagreed with Quine, but found himself so fascinated he immediately wrote to Harvard, where Quine was teaching, asking to transfer. “I thought I’m going to be a philosopher and... tell this man Quine why he is wrong,” Dennett recalled.

Once he had his degree from Harvard, Dennett went on to Oxford as a graduate student, where Gilbert Ryle, alerted by Quine, had found him a place at Hertford College. Curiously, the strongest impression Dennett made at Oxford had little to do with his academic talents. As well as being a talented sculptor, he supplemented his allowance by playing jazz piano in bars and also claimed to have introduced the first Frisbee into Britain and watched its meme-like colonisation of the country.

Whereas at Harvard he had been seen as a critic of Quine, at Oxford he became seen as “the village Quinean”. It was at Oxford, too, that he first became interested in the functioning of the brain.

The Oxford philosopher John Lucas had published a paper arguing that Godel’s incompleteness theorem disproved the proposition that human brains act like machines or that human thought could be completely simulated on a computer. Dennett effectively devoted the rest of his life to challenging this view.

Dennett's 2017 book on consciousness: his books, though dense, sold astonishingly well
Dennett's 2017 book on consciousness: his books, though dense, sold astonishingly well

When Dennett returned, aged 23, to America and his first job – at the University of California in Irvine – his ideas were almost fully formed. A version of his doctoral thesis was published in 1969, as Content and Consciousness; his next book, Brainstorms (1978), contained the first full statement of his distinctive approach to the behaviour of the brain and its relationship to philosophical concepts.

In 1971 Dennett had moved to Tufts University where he rose to be professor and chairman of the department of philosophy and, from 85, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies. During the 1970s and 1980s he made two friendships that would greatly influence his work – with Richard Dawkins, whose Selfish Gene was published in 1976, and with Douglas Hofstadter, the computer scientist who wrote Godel, Escher, Bach (1979), a classic work on of artificial intelligence.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Dennett spent a year at Stanford with Hofstadter and they collaborated on an anthology, The Mind’s I (1981), which remains, with his collection of essays, Brainchildren (1998), the clearest statement of Dennett’s thought.

Dennett’s books, though dense, sold astonishingly well. In Freedom Evolves (2003) he argued people with genes predisposing them to, say, alcoholism or criminality are not predestined to become alcoholics or criminals, because they also have evolutionarily-determined free will. “Free will is like the air we breathe, and it is present almost everywhere we want to go,” he argued, “ but it is not only not eternal, it evolved, and is still evolving.”

Daniel Dennett married, in 1963, Susan Bell, with whom he had a son and a daughter.

Daniel Dennett, born March 28 1942, died April 19 2024